Colleges hit back at critics in the CBI
The Association of Colleges has launched an attack on businesses for "tabloid tub-thumping" and criticising colleges while neglecting their own workers' training.
John Brennan, the AoC's chief executive, accused the Confederation of British Industry of unfairly attacking his members while refusing to invest in skills.
Speaking at the AoC annual conference, he said: "They should pluck out the beam in their own eye before pointing out all the specks in public-sector provision. Sometimes when you read CBI press releases and speeches, you might get the impression that all state-owned, post-16 institutions required was one huge spoonful of Thatcherite castor-oil."
He said employers had hardly increased investment in training for a decade, according to the Labour Force Survey. Less than half provided any off-the-job training, he said, and the average spend on each employer was just pound;205 a year. "The hard fact is that Roy of the Rovers does more real-life training than the average firm," Dr Brennan said.
People had a responsibility to debate the future of FE in a non-partisan way. "When this obligation is not met and we get tabloid tub-thumping instead, bad policy may well be the result," he told delegates.
Colleges have suggested that CBI members, some of whom are private training firms, have a vested interest in undermining them.
Half of large employers use FE colleges for training, according to Learning and Skills Council figures, and 95 per cent of companies that do so are satisfied.
Dr Brennan said that some disadvantaged groups could not be left to employers or private training companies, saying that Muslim men, for instance, were among the least likely to be in managerial jobs and the most likely to be low-skilled. "Does anybody in the room really think that this challenge will be fully met by private training providers or corporate training programmes?
"Does anyone not think that the challenge will principally fall to local FE colleges, working in concert with local communities, reaching out with appropriate provision to those who need to upgrade their talents?"
Dr Brennan said that colleges were happy to compete, but insisted on fairness. Colleges should be freed from bureaucratic restrictions which obstruct them, he said. "As the skills needs of the nation are set out for the years ahead, the college sector aims to be the supplier of choice for all employers, local and national, and for all learners, of all ages and all ambitions."
Mr Brennan's comments came as the CBI welcomed the Foster report for exposing colleges to the "benefits of market competition".
John Cridland, deputy director general of the CBI, said: "FE colleges are suffering an identity crisis and offer a confusing mish-mash of services and standards.
"While we welcome the introduction of competition, albeit limited, to further education funding, there is a golden opportunity for the Government to go further and open up the system fully to the best training provider, regardless of origin."
The CBI claims colleges often fail to train people properly for the modern workplace - although it acknowledges FE has been damaged by frequent policy changes.